The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet
Becky Chambers
Harper Voyager
Release Date: July 5, 2016
ISBN 978-0-06-244413-4

We’ve all heard the T.S. Elliot quote, in one form or another: “The journey, Not the destination matters…”

In Becky Chambers’ debut novel, this adage is beautifully rendered while still maintaining a story that builds towards a striking conclusion.

The Wayfarer is a beat up, patched up, blustery little ship, but then, it doesn’t need to be fancy. It’s a tunneling ship, used to punch wormholes in space, allowing for quick travel across vast distances. While its function is straightforward, its ragtag crew is far more divergent.

The storyline is compelling: the Wayfarer is a capable tunneling ship, but the crew would love to be able to equip her for larger, more lucrative jobs. Still, that takes a lot more scratch than they can scrounge from the work they currently perform. When the chance to take an edgy job arises – blind-punching a wormhole between Central space and the Toremi, a brutal, warlike system whose inclusion in the Galactic Commons has been highly controversial – the crew decides to go for it, despite the unknowns and unspoken dangers.

The captain of the Wayfarer is Ashby Santoso, hardnosed but fair. He’s human, but his second in command, pilot Sissix, is not; she’s a of a feathered reptilian race (but don’t use the word “lizard” to describe her – that’s a racial slur). Neither is the Navigator, Ohan, who is a Sianat Pair (a race that is able to conceptualize multidimensional space as easily as humans can do algebra); or Dr. Chef, a Grum who serves as both medical attendant and culinary specialist.  (One of the characters says of the Grum, “If you crossed an otter with a gecko, then made it walk like a six-legged caterpillar, you’d be getting somewhere.”)

The other humans are far from typical: Corbin is an algaeist (algae being a vital component of the workings of the ship) – and he is a sanctimonious jerk. Jenks is a mechanical whiz who has eschewed the common implants that would “fix” his dwarfism. Kizzy is, well… Kizzy is ditsy and crazy and chaotic, but she’s also a technical genius. Then there is Lovey, the ship’s AI, who may not be human or even organic, but is still a distinct personality.

This is the crew that Rosemary Harper joins as a low level but still highly appreciated administrative clerk. She’s new to tunneling – heck, she’s new to interstellar travel – but she has her own reasons for wanting to leave her home behind.

It is incredibly gratifying – and highly entertaining – to experience a story where distinctly non-human characters play a vital role in not only the workings of the ship, but in the dynamics of the crew. And it’s not just their appearances – it’s their customs and histories, their thought processes and tastes and reactions. Since Rosemary is new to virtually every aspect of space travel (her knowledge comes from schooling, not from practical experience), we get to see her wide eyed wonder – and her trepidation – at not only abandoning her planet-side existence, but also in interacting with other creatures who challenge her beliefs and assumptions. She comes to see her crewmates not as other species, but as unique and complex individuals, and we get to take those steps with her.

The learning curve for Rosemary is high, but expectations in this future world are far more magnanimous than what we have today: not only are humans a small portion of the sapient beings in the Galactic Commons, they are considered less advanced (and less prestigious) than many of the other races that have been interacting with each other for millennia. This allows for much of what Rosemary learns to be approached carefully, with acknowledgment that we have a prejudice based on our species that must be overcome. Yet there is no political agenda involved in this careful treading in a larger universe; it simply is the way of things.

As we watch Rosemary acclimate to her new life – the tunneling process, the navigation of space, the ways that basic needs must be anticipated and plotted out, being in close proximity with unfamiliar beings, finding confidence in her own value and opening up to the wonders that surround her – we find ourselves learning and cringing and opening up right along with her.  As the Wayfarer travels towards Toremi Ka and the challenge that awaits her there, we get more than mere glimpses into the lives and minds of the diverse crew; we begin to understand and appreciate them beyond their differences. They become vital, not only to the story, but to each other.

When the final, stunning climax comes, there is much more at stake than a lucrative payoff.  The destination becomes not the apex of the story, but the catalyst that punches home how important the journey has been.  The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is a breathtaking experience, even in the parts where it breaks your heart – the kind of experience that will stay with you and tinge the way you look at  your own life for a long time to come.

~ Sharon Browning

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